Partnering to Improve Student Success in Central New Mexico: A Q&A with Angelo Gonzales

Insights & Outlooks: What do you think distinguishes or differentiates the role that a community-based organization like United Way of Central New Mexico can play in supporting student success at the local level?

Angelo Gonzales: As the Chief Strategy Officer at United Way of Central New Mexico (UWCNM), I direct all of our grantmaking and change projects in education, including Mission: Graduate, a Cradle to Career partnership that we started six years ago that has a critical goal for college attainment in Central New Mexico: 60,000 new graduates with college degrees and certificates by the year 2020. UWCNM has made a strong commitment as an organization to provide what we call backbone support–the financial support, coordination, leadership and resources. This enables our local partners to achieve impact at a larger scale, with the ultimate goal of helping more students graduate from high school, go to college, earn their certificates or degrees, and then succeed in the workforce.

We’ve really internalized the mission of Mission: Graduate, and it’s helping to guide our investments in local community impact efforts focused on college access and completion. Sometimes this happens through supporting unexpected partnerships across different sectors. For example, we support an organization called Encuentro that provides immigrant outreach here in the Central New Mexico area and partnering with Central New Mexico Community College to help their immigrant clients be able to get home health aide certifications.

Another example is our work with NMCAN, which works with disconnected youth or young people who are not in school, not employed and often low-income. Their initiative, Back on Track, focuses on systems impacted youth, particularly youth that have engaged in the foster care system to help them find on-ramps back to both high school and eventually college. Finally, we’re going to be engaging even more directly in policy and advocacy moving forward, so that we can support our partners and grantees through state and federal policies that enable them to expand their reach.

Insights & Outlooks: When you think about New Mexico’s biggest challenges or like the unmet need that United Way of Central New Mexico and Mission: Graduate are hoping to fill, what are those gaps for those populations that you’re trying to focus on?

Angelo Gonzales:  We have found that there are some pretty significant gaps. First of all, there’s a gender gap. Nationally and in New Mexico, men are going on to college at lower rates than women. They’re graduating at lower rates, and we actually see boys graduating at about a 10-point lower rate than girls from our high schools here in New Mexico. The gap is particularly striking among boys of color and men of color. A major focal area for us is supporting men of color and enabling them to pursue postsecondary education. We also believe that there are huge opportunities for working adults to be able to return to college. In fact, when we look at our data for our community, the way we’re going to reach our goal of 60,000 new graduates with college degrees and certificates by 2020 has to be through a stronger focus, not just on the traditional high school to college pipeline, but also through working adults who are interested in furthering their education or completing their degrees.

The challenge is that there are a lot of barriers for returning students, notably time and financial resources. People are busy. They’re working. They’re raising kids and supporting their families. They often don’t realize that there are many opportunities in post-secondary that are tailored for working adults but money is often a big barrier. Nationally and in our state, it can be both a perceived and a real barrier. There’s a lot of assumptions about the cost of furthering their education. That’s not to dismiss the very real financial barriers that many face because for some folks, especially those who are unemployed or underemployed, post-secondary education can be very challenging to pay for. Increasingly, we’re encouraging students to leverage funding that’s available through the state and local workforce system to help working adults afford their education.

However, simply reaching these working adults often poses a real challenge. As a Lumina Foundation Talent Hub, we decided to address these gaps through the creation of an initiative called Graduate! ABQ, modeled after the national Graduate! Network, which has become one of the premier efforts across the country singularly focused on helping adults return to college. Graduate! ABQ is a partnership with our local Workforce Board’s one-stop (known as Workforce Connection), the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, and our local institutions of higher education, particularly Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico.

Graduate! ABQ provides free one-on-one coaching and financial assistance to any adult who wants to pursue post-high school education. Re-engaging these students is one of the biggest gaps we see. How do you get the word out? How do you target your efforts to working adults in the community? Through Graduate! ABQ and our partnerships with the workforce system itself, we can connect directly with those looking for jobs. They may be unemployed or underemployed. By being co-located in that system, we’re able to directly connect with adults looking for work who may have written off college or a certificate, but may need that experience to move into a career that’s going to allow them to be able to gain higher wages and more mobility within our economy.

With a new credential and skills, these working adults can completely re-imagine their career paths and the future of their families–but that takes startup investment and a clear strategy to reconnect them with those opportunities.

Insights & Outlooks: When you think about the most promising work that’s happening in New Mexico right now, are there specific examples that have implications for the nation or for other states or communities that are looking to solve some similar challenges?

Angelo Gonzales: Community colleges in general are essential and not always highly valued –they can offer some of the best value education for people who are interested in pursuing their education. Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) has a great story to tell to the country, and CNM in particular has had really significant gains when it comes to helping their students graduate and get to the finish line. They’ve deployed a variety of strategies to improve student success. Everything they do is really oriented toward helping their students think about that finish line. They used data to forecast student enrollment and then reviewed the alignment of their programs to employment trends to ensure their programs are producing high-value degrees and certificates every year.  

Insights & Outlooks: Finally, is there a personal reason behind your passion about doing education that motivates you to do this work?

Angelo Gonzales: This work is so deeply personal to me. I was born and raised in Albuquerque. I went to public schools here in Albuquerque, and I’m passionate about college attainment because I had the opportunity to go to a prestigious, private college, Pomona College, which is a small liberal arts school in Claremont, California. Ironically, I wasn’t the first to graduate because my mom and I share that title: my mom and I actually graduated on the exact same day from different institutions!

What my mom and I share is the knowledge that education can really transform lives and families, and that’s why UWCNM mission really resonates with me. I just feel such a sense of responsibility to be able to take what I’ve been given, those privileges, and really give back to kids here in our community. It’s just a joy to be able to do this work and to really try to help local workers, families and children reach their full potential.